Public relations needs to be rhizomatic – academic, scholarly, professional and practical

rhizomatic tapestry

I describe myself as a hybrid, which I view as representing heterogeneity or a mixture of different things. I prefer the complex and chaotic to the simple and predictable. I relish individuality, variety and multi-tasking. For me, that also sums up public relations. Hence my argument that public relations needs to be rhizomatic and embrace the academic, scholarly, professional and practical. None of these alone is enough.

Those who deny the academic or view it as a pejorative in respect of not directly useful are missing the point. Those who spend their entire lives conceptualising the field without ever considering vocational elements could benefit from demonstrating the value of their reflections. Those who simply practice PR, and never consider what may make their work professional have a job and not a career. Those who omit scholarship from their understanding of public relations, seem to me to be lacking in intellectual curiosity.

Such neat little boxes of academics, scholars, professionals and practitioners suggests a lack of connection, let alone integration, between these roles. This is an ongoing topic which I’ve covered before – including applying the concept of intersectionality to the creation of more ‘stripey triangles’ i.e. those who practice PR and also study its academic underpinnings.

I also wrote in April about T-shaped careers in public relations extending an analogy of a tree (proposed by Natalie Bovair on a post at PR Conversations) into conceptualising public relations as a rainforest with different layers.

I’m currently reading A Thousand Plateaus by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze and psychiatrist/social activist, Félix Guattari which includes the term rhizomatic as a concept allowing for multiple, non-hierarchical connections as opposed to the established arborescent (tree-based) model that works with vertical and linear connections. I’m not clear where I’m going with these ideas, but they resonated with my thinking around public relations careers in my PhD studies where I am not convinced of the value of ladder and matrix approaches to career progress and competence development.

The rhizome idea seems to fit with three concepts that I’ve identified as threads through my research to date, which I wrote about in a 2012 post: Plotting a personal path to PR career success. These looked at:

  • how there are a variety of career starting points in PR and also Broughton’s 1943 observation of a post facto connection to the occupation
  • von Bertalanffy’s 1968 concept of equifinality reflecting how we can reach the same end by following different paths
  • the importance of self-efficacy (belief in one’s capabilities to change a situation) as articulated by Albert Bandura who further emphasised the exercise of personal, proxy and collective agency.

In short, we can come into PR at different points and make an immediate connection, get to a common end point by different paths, and use our own and others efforts (as advocates or community members) in pursuit of our careers.

This is overlaid by personal, organisational/occupational and societal factors. As such, I believe that careers in public relations are, and should be, wonderfully personal, messy, complex and unstructured. Most people in public relations do not seem to climb well-positioned ladders, follow neat pathways or step up and across a prescribed matrix in their careers.

My research is seeking to understand how PR practitioners make sense of their career through the construction of a narrative framework (which Savickas has proposed).

The metaphor I’ve been using in thinking about all of this is a tapestry with stories providing narrative threads (yarns) that we can stitch in different directions, including out from the canvas rather than simply along the warp and weft. I also like how many of the words that apply to tapestry can be utilised within the metaphor, such as textile (woven from Latin texere, to weave), fabric (Middle French, fabrique, to build or make something and Latin faber, an artisan who works in hard materials). It provides a richness in conceptualisation as well as in the practice of our careers.

Deleuze and Guattari rhizomatic concept has been likened to a “crazy patchwork quilt” allowing for how rhizomes develop in unforeseen directions and in unforeseen ways. According to contemporary career theory, traditional organised, linear models do not reflect the modern world of work. So rather than seeking to force a professional or bureaucratic career structure onto public relations, I believe we should be pioneering a new way of conceptualising careers in the occupation, looking at emerging models of learning and development and demonstrating how public relations is at the forefront of 21st century rhizomatic careers.

So what does this mean for the academic, scholar, professional and practitioner in public relations?

Jacquie L’Etang and Mandy Powell seem to be doing an interesting study at Queen Margaret University looking at how public relations practitioners develop “expertise” as “reflective practitioners”. As such, they are considering how practice and theory “articulate with each other and are developed” – which they feel may be conceptualised as rhizomatic rather than a linear progression.

They also refer to Engestrom’s concept of ‘knotworking’, which involves collaboration between otherwise loose connections and relate this to consideration of communities of practice. Engestrom connects his concept to new ways of working that are decentralised, collaborative and ever-shifting.

As with Deleuze and Guatteri, Engestrom’s work is new to me, but seems to offer great potential for considering careers in public relations along with the interface of academia, scholarship, professionalism and practice.

The final thread that I’ve been weaving with this week is rhizomatic learning – and the work of Dave Cormier. I’m interested in his thinking about how knowledge creation is increasingly about co-construction and evolution rather than a search for personal expertise.

This suggests to me that as well as – or perhaps instead of – looking at traditional approaches to bridging the academic-practice divide in public relations (placements, academic-in-residence, guest lectures, etc) or a hybridisation model, we need to become more rhizomatic in our creation, sharing, negotiation and co-construction of knowledge in our field.

Let’s move away from criticisms by practitioners and professional bodies regarding what is taught about PR in academia and counter-claims that professional bodies and practitioners don’t engage with scholarly underpinnings. Rather we can adopt Cormier’s mantra that “the community is the curriculum” and encourage a more organic, spontaneous, flexible, collaborative perspective among the different the PR tribal communities. Then whether or not we, and our knowledge and behaviour, can be described as academic, scholarly, professional or practical will be less relevant than whether it forms a useful knot (connective node) for the network that comprises the full tapestry of public relations.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Public relations needs to be rhizomatic – academic, scholarly, professional and practical”

  1. Great article – as always – and thanks for a new word – ‘rhizomatic’.
    What it seems to emphasize is the need to make complexity at the heart of our understanding of how PR works, and rather than superimposing simplistic models on this complexity to explain it – such as the 2 way communications theories – we need to embrace simpliity at its core.
    The problem I feel why ‘academic’ is a particular perjorative in a PR context is that we have poor PR theory (I usually use stronger words) that is neither relevant to operational practice or provides a platform for greater insight and understanding.
    Would really welcome your input – and your readers – into #PRredefined – a new global idea, to facilitate bottom-up thinking, to create a new theoretical framweork for PR and potentially new definitions for what we do.
    I’m working on new ideas to create new ecosystems for creativity in communities and so do embrace these ideas of ‘Knotworking’ (as opposed to ‘Notworking’ – ineffective networking activity!)
    Can I just lob in a current favourite biological metaphor of mine at the moment – of Epiphyte plants that add to the richness of the world (or its tapestry). Here’s to more rhizomatic working.

  2. Thanks Andy – I mentioned Epiphytes in my post on PR as a rainforest, in discussing how such plants grow on others for support. It certainly has validity as a metaphor (I used it to consider those starting out in PR). Actually, cultivated orchids are likely to be both epiphytes and also rhizomatic in their sympodial growth (don’t you just love a bit of Google knowledge!).

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